How We Hired: Splendid Spoon Founder and CEO Nicole Centeno
When you’re in the early days of growing your team, it can be tough to figure out where to start and how to get the best talent. Hearing from those who’ve been where you are and succeeded in bringing great people on board can be invaluable. Splendid Spoon, a ready-to-eat plant-based meal delivery startup, has grown from solo founder and CEO Nicole Centeno to a team of 15 since it launched six years ago. WeWork Labs spoke with Centeno about what it’s been like to expand the team—the biggest challenges, the key traits she looked for in early hires, and the hiring mistakes she’s made that you can avoid.
WeWork Labs: You started the company on your own. When did you make the decision to expand the team and what was it like to make those early hires?
Nicole Centeno: For the first two years it was really just me because I was on a shoestring budget and hadn't raised any capital. When I did start hiring, the hard part was that I had a small pool that I had access to because I couldn't pay very much. Nobody knew what the brand was. And there was nothing really material that I could offer people that was competitive with other options that they might have been considering. The nice part about that though is that I was able to filter only for people who were really passionate and driven and motivated by my brand's mission. So it was a small but really dedicated pool of talent.
WeWork Labs: What roles did you hire for first?
NC: The first roles were really generalists. I needed an extra pair of hands. The very first hire I made was someone who's actually still with us today and she came out of the NYU food studies program to help me set up for different tasting events. I needed someone to be my partner in those events and she was ready, willing, and able to do anything and everything.
WeWork Labs: What recruiting strategies did you use in the early days?
NC: I tried to post in affinity groups, so I went to a lot of food networking events and through that would meet people who would share within their networks. Food+Tech Connect was just starting at that time, too, and as soon as they started job postings, I posted with them. By year three or so, I started to really think about what I wanted from more of an operational skill set so I worked with and posted jobs with schools with MBA programs that really promoted entrepreneurship like Stanford, Wharton, Columbia, and Harvard. I was filtering for passion, mission, and skill set.
WeWork Labs: How were you selling Splendid Spoon to these graduates who, based on the schools they went to, probably had a lot of job options?
NC: One thing was market opportunity. At the time, the health and wellness space and direct-to-consumer food were just starting to pick up steam and get more investments. There had been a couple interesting exits in the wellness space and I always saw that as a way to market myself and the business. All hiring conversations are essentially pitch meetings and I really leaned into that—the market opportunity, the timing of our product, and some of the signals from the market. I also leaned into my personal story, because you're going to be spending a lot of time with this hire, especially in the early days when it's just a couple of you, and you really want to make sure that the cultural fit is productive. Leaning into my own personal mission and the reason that I get out of bed in the morning and pushing them in interviews to tell me the same motivating factors for them was really important early on, too.
WeWork Labs: Did you have hiring experience prior to Splendid Spoon?
NC: My very first job out of school was actually as a recruiter. One of the biggest things I learned from that role is how emotional hires are. For the person being interviewed, especially, this is a life decision that people make. You're committing to something. Even if it ends up only working out for nine months to a year, it's where you go everyday. It's where you spend 90 percent of your time. It's a really big emotional decision as much as anything else. I think about that a lot when we're interviewing people, and especially as we get closer to the offer and we're really hoping that we're going to bring someone on. I'm usually the one reminding the team to ask about the commute, ask that person how they picture themselves in the office, ask that person what are some of the other things that you enjoy doing with your time? What are the things that challenge you outside of work? It’s is a stressful experience even if you're moving to your dream job because it's change and people have a hard time with change.
WeWork Labs: Have the traits you look for in new hires changed now that you’re a larger team?
NC: We have functional groups now, so we have skill sets that we require for certain jobs and we are specializing more and more. That's really important and that's new. I think early on it's motivation, hustle, and humility. Those are the three characteristics that we were filtering for. And then it starts to specialize and you start to look at ability.
WeWork Labs: What about the challenges of hiring?
NC: Early on there was almost this simplicity of not being able to offer people market-rate salaries because the pool was really small. We are still as driven by our mission as we were in the very early days, but now we're able to offer more competitive salaries and we've raised venture capital. That means the business has inherent value that people can research and figure out for themselves. And so I do find it a little more challenging to really understand that it's not just about passion anymore—it can't be once you get to a certain point. And that means you have to filter for really specific skill sets, for people who command certain rates in the market. It’s also just more noise, in a way, that you have to consider as you try to hone in on the right person.
WeWork Labs: Have you made any hiring mistakes along the way?
NC: I think that being late, whether it’s for an interview or during the first week of work, is a big red flag and I've overlooked it a couple of times. And every single time I've done that, it's come back to bite me. It’s not indicative of the same personnel problem other than the fact that it will not work out with that person.
Also, in the early days, I tried to filter for specific abilities and skill sets at the expense of good old fashioned hard work, and that didn't work out. Early on you really just need trustworthy people who can hustle. The reality of an early stage startup is that everyone is a generalist and everyone takes turns cleaning the bathroom. Trying to be really specific early on was not a good use of time.
WeWork Labs: How have you dealt with situations where people aren’t working out?
NC: That’s really hard, especially when you're small. I've fallen into the situation where I convinced myself that we were better off with any body than nobody, even if that body is only functioning at 40 or 50 percent. That's also a big mistake. One of the better pieces of advice that I've received, and this is from one of the founding members of the team, is to hire slow and fire fast, and I think that's very true. If you could only pick one of those, it would be fire fast. If someone is not working out, you are better off losing them. The team will get stronger. It’s hard to do in the moment but you're better off with the difficulty of filling the role and realigning the team on the gaps that need to be addressed than the difficulty of dealing with someone who you know is not a good fit. Both situations are hard, so pick the hard situation that's more productive in the long run.
WeWork Labs: What advice would you give to startups who are just starting to hire?
NC: The exercise of listing out your business’ principles or value sets is really helpful because the early hires become a part of the DNA of your brand culture. And your early hires, if you’re growing fast, are going to be doing the hiring in a year's time. Being really focused and intentional about the characteristics that you're hiring for in the early days is hugely beneficial.
Learn more about hiring as an early-stage startup.